[22 March 2005]
When I spoke the praises of Jeff Finlin’s Somewhere South of Wonder early last year, it had already been out for more than a year overseas. What that meant was that Finlin was already at work on his fourth studio release—the incredible and idiosyncratic Epinonymous. The good news? This time around, those of us stateside don’t have to wait as long to get what our friends across the pond are already enjoying.
Epinonymous is Finlin’s finest effort to date—and while his music may remain something of an acquired taste, it’s also perhaps his most accessible release as well. Finlin combines a distinctively gruff troubadour’s voice, as well as a well-read poet’s sensitivity and emotional honesty into music that chronicles the lives and moods of America. On this new collection, he covers a lot of ground and moods—from urban to rural settings, capturing poignant aural postcards that allow a glimpse into the anonymous lives that inhabit a nation.
Produced by Lij and Jeff Finlin, the new CD has an engaging intimacy to it—these eleven melodic songs should appeal to a wide spectrum of unlikely fans: those of Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, Gary Myrick, Dr. John, T-Bone Burnett, Greg Brown and Steve Earle, just to name a few. As always, Finlin’s emotive voice is the compelling focal point for each of these tracks—along with his poetic lyrical sense and ability to capture the magic of small moments from real life. Once again, he is joined by an impressive cadre of musical friends, including Pat Buchanan (not the pundit), Will Kimbrough, Kevin Hornback, Richard McLaurin and Dave Jacques.
A grizzled veteran of the music business, Finlin inexplicably still remains something of a hidden gem in America (his largest following currently is in the U.K). Yet his new CD serves up a healthy portion of solid Americana, a collection of astute observations in song that come from a place that alternates between love and disgust at the current state of things.
The CD leads off with “Better Than This”, a tuneful bemoaning of a life too far gone and yet stuck in an eternal limbo: “broken wheels and roadhouse prayers, / It’s all or nothing and the cupboard’s bare, / Oh, somewhere got to be better than this.” This sounds like prime John Hiatt, frankly—and it works well.
McLaurin’s clarinet adds a pleasant folksy element to “Nothing’s Enough”, wherein Finlin plays piano (among a host of instruments). This confession of memories of perfect love from one who is “too old to try, too tired to care” is a sweet, beautiful lament. With lyrics like this, it’s a shame Finlin doesn’t include them in the CD booklet:
“Dance with me across the empty air, /
My heart’s as big as the moon, /
Come with me where there’s not a care, /
And it won’t take long /
Before we sing our songs and there’s nothing there.”
“Postcard From Topeka” is another study in small-town lore, absolving one of fault and consequence, reducing things to the simplicity of a mere postcard. Finlin wraps catchy synthesizer lines around concise lyrics that reveal a world of personal history:
“You ain’t your money, / It ain’t my truth, /
Or your southern auntie /
Making love to fruit. / She ain’t your savior or my funny valentine, /
Hanging on the wall in the double wide, /
It’s just a picture under skies so blue, /
A postcard from Topeka while we was passing through.”
In “The Long Lonesome Death of the Traveling Man” we get another touching ballad of sweet memories from a man at the end of his line:
“Here I am standing right in the middle, /
With my head in the west and my mind somewhere east of belief, /
Here I ride at the speed of the sound of the lonely, /
Holding you, / Looking back holding me.”
Finlin’s ability to capture the true essence of things in such a concise way elevates these songs to a level of intensity and emotion not easily found elsewhere.
“Bringin’ My Love” has a wistful western feel, and Will Kimbrough’s guitar wails nuanced accents throughout. This is a guilty man’s confession and hope for love as he returns home, another marvelous moment adeptly capturing Finlin’s magic.
One of my favorites here is the infectiously upbeat “American Dream #109”. In the space of a few perfect verses Finlin manages many keen observations with tongue firmly planted in cheek:
“We live our lives for the future, /
Fill our plates up to ‘biggie size’, /
We ain’t leaving ‘til we’re heaving, /
Drinking and dancing in our compromise. /
Can’t get it up when you’re sixty, /
Pop a pill and now you’re twenty-three. /
In little houses by the freeway, /
We’re living large in our American dream”.
Another favorite is the wonderful “Forever Evergreen”. This is Finlin at his storytelling best, capturing the Native American struggle to maintain a once-proud heritage against enormous disadvantage. Geronimo is tired of living on the run, so he builds a great casino, but ultimately hears “surrender’s songs whistling in the air”. It’s poignant and resplendent, full of grace and charm even as it communicates a sad and important message.
“Holes In My Hands” is another gem, a short précis of one’s dreams of what could have been against a screaming neon background. Finlin moves the setting to New York with “Soho Rain”, an achingly poetic love song:
“Diamonds in her eyes, her future my fate, /
I long for her tonight - the strength of change, /
Tears she shed for me they puddle in my veins, /
Leave me all alone in her Soho rain”.
Woeful, contemplative reminiscences about life and love seem to be Finlin’s stock-in-trade. Yet each one seems genuine and distinctive—witness the tale sung in the haunting “Just Like Everyman”.
The CD ends with “Hallelu”, a voice of aged wisdom in a Chicago setting looking back upon the goings-on in our world and wondering “what’s it all coming to”. Related in a piano and voice style reminiscent of Tom Waits, Finlin’s lyrical mastery is as good as it gets:
“Saw my witness in a misfit angel, /
Found my place in an ache for more, /
Made all my time down at the lazy river, /
With a church choir singing to a sawdust floor. /
Found my freedom in a cross that lay burning, /
Found my home in a homeless man, /
Found my voice in a bell I heard a-ringing, /
Ringing in waves out across this land.”
This is the everyday writ large in deep emotions, sung in a style that conveys the world-weariness of time and age. Finlin’s a master of the story in song—and his rough-and-tumble voice intensifies the poignancy of his terse lyrics. With repeated listens, these songs grow in stature—their bittersweet messages stay with you for a while. Epinonymous is Finlin’s musical piece de resistance thus far—I urge you to discover for yourself the power of his songs.